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Canadian Philanthropy in a Connected World

May 22, 2020
Hilary Pearson

We don’t exist in a bubble in this world. We exist in a web.

This is how we need to think about our situation as a philanthropy sector, as a country, as a region and as human beings on our planet.

The inevitable push in this pandemic is towards closure, towards turning inward and locking down, into seeing the world as “us” and not “them”. It’s inevitable but it’s not irresistible. In fact, ignoring the world is the worst thing we can do to ourselves. Solidarity, connection, and mutual support are the way to get through this. It’s not an option, it’s a must to maintain our web, not to retreat into our bubble.

This was a central thread in the wide-ranging  conversation which I moderated on April 30 for Philanthropic Foundations Canada. The topic was whether and how Canadian foundations can fund globally during the pandemic. But the very thoughtful discussion evolved into being about much more than global funding opportunities. We discussed our opportunity as a country to re-imagine and to rebuild not just our own communities but the global community. We have a chance to bring Canadian values and skills of humility, willingness to listen, to learn and to partner to the job of mending the gaps in the global web.

Dr Peter Singer, former CEO of Grand Challenges Canada and now a senior advisor at the World Health Organization, put it succinctly during the conversation: “This is the biggest global crisis in our lifetimes”. And it’s not just a health crisis, it’s an economic crisis. People will die of the virus. But they will also die from lack of health care for other illnesses. And they will die of poverty. Existing weaknesses and gaps in the global health web will be magnified: access to water and hygiene, food security, children’s health and education, discrimination and violence against women and girls. These gaps don’t just affect other people. The difficulty of fighting the virus in Nigeria or Bangladesh will mean that the virus continues to be a danger everywhere. Polio and smallpox were not just eradicated in North America. They had to be eradicated across the world. 

Nic Moyer of the Canadian Council for International Cooperation addressed the need for a robust global health system. This is a role for Canadian philanthropy – to advocate for a strong multilateral system. The World Health Organization is one of a family of multilateral organizations that have grown over the years since the end of World War Two to remedy what was perceived as a lack of and a need for global collaboration. The work that the WHO does would have to be invented now if it didn’t exist – global data collection and sharing, global guidance, coordination of supplies and training of health workers and of course global research and development of therapeutics and vaccines against COVID 19. 

Jennifer Brennan of the Mastercard Foundation spoke about how a globally-focused foundation thinks about this moment in global history. In her words, we must seize this moment to build the world we want. Mastercard Foundation has been working for almost two decades to support communities and particularly young people both in Africa and in Indigenous communities in Canada. In its pandemic response, the Foundation has focused on both the immediate and the longer term. It has created the COVID 19 Recovery and Resilience Program, which has two prongs: emergency support for health workers, young people and communities in Canada and in Africa, and support to build longer term resilience through access to digital solutions and financing for small businesses as well as e-learning. Mastercard is also continuing its support for the multilateral system of organizations in the UN family such as the Food and Agricultural Organization which is fighting the locust infestation in East Africa. The consistent goal is to build the resilience of all for the future (which includes the crisis caused by climate change).

Every foundation can have a strategic conversation about how to deal with this crisis from the lens of their own mission or purpose.  Is your purpose to improve quality of lives, to address the causes of poverty, to relieve distress, to create vital knowledge, to support leaders, to create better policies? Whatever it is, this is your chance to think about responding to what this moment calls for: stepping up, engagement, advocacy, global connection. It’s not a time to close doors but to open them. We face huge transitions. How can we as funders help to make those transitions better? In the late 1940s and early 1950s, many of the multilateral organizations such as the WHO and the FAO that the world depends on were created with the imagination and leadership of Canadians. Canadian foundations were not as active then as they are today. As individuals and civil society organizations we have opportunities now to engage directly in maintaining our global web. And certainly, foundations have the resources. We can support the WHO COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund today (see below for details). But let’s also use our time now to think about transition, adaptation, resilience and creativity in the 2020s for our country and to advocate for an effective global system that helps us all avoid crises or cope more effectively with their consequences.

Canadian foundations can grant to the WHO COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund through the KBF Canada Foundation: This is the fastest and only way to contribute directly to global response efforts led by the World Health Organization (WHO). The Fund has raised more than $200m in six weeks and has already disbursed almost half for critical needs.

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